Protecting human life is not the first thing that comes to mind when thinking of football linemen. Yet, while competition can be brutal on the field, many players can be just as gentle off the field.
Chris Godfrey was an offensive lineman for the University of Michigan in the late 1970s and for the Washington Redskins, New York Jets, Green Bay Packers, New York Giants and Seattle Seahawks in the 1980s. The major highlight of his professional career was being a starter on the Giants’ team that defeated the Denver Broncos to win Super Bowl XXI, 39-20, in 1987.
After Godfrey’s playing days were over, he earned a law degree from the University of Notre Dame and founded Life Athletes, an organization that promotes respect for human dignity and appreciation for virtuous living. Most of the group’s attention is focused on young people, but in recent years, the elderly have become more prominent in the group’s work.
Godfrey, a Detroit native and father of six, credits a meeting with Mother Teresa in the late 1980s for helping to push him in the right direction after his playing career. He spoke of this and other things leading up to this year’s Super Bowl LII, featuring the Philadelphia Eagles squaring off against the New England Patriots, Feb. 4 in Minneapolis, Minnesota.
What do you remember most from the Super Bowl in January 1987?
The first thing was technical and strategic. Early in the game, the sun was setting in the offense’s eyes at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, California — a scene immortalized in a very large Kodak photo placed in Grand Central Station after the Super Bowl. We expected blitzes by Denver’s great linebackers — on my side were four-time first-team All-Pro Karl Mecklenburg and Jim Ryan — but our plan did not anticipate the sun setting and them attacking with the sun at their backs. It provided great lighting for a picture, but made it very difficult to see which linebacker was coming. Yet things ended up working out. Our quarterback, Phil Simms, set a Super Bowl record for highest percentage (88%) of completed passes that day.
The second memory that comes quickly to mind is how the second half was an entirely different game. John Denver sang Rocky Mountain High as we went into halftime with Denver leading 10-9, but things took a dramatic turn as we took the field for the second half and the crowd began singing to Frank Sinatra’s New York, New York. We scored 30 points that half and won the game.
Before the victory, I had been to the Rose Bowl three times with the Michigan Wolverines and lost all of those games. Win or lose, it’s always fun playing in the huge, history-filled Rose Bowl, with its picturesque surroundings, but that 1987 victory in Pasadena was a great way to end my last football trip there.
How did you go from a Super Bowl victory to being a pro-life advocate?
It was a much smoother transition than some might expect. The Giants were a great organization, starting with the owner, Wellington Mara. He was the meekest of men, but still in charge — a gentleman, but not a pushover. He was also a pro-life Catholic who had 11 children. He helped members of the Super Bowl-winning team put together a pro-life video in 1989 called “Champions for Life.” Mark Bavaro, Phil Simms and I were three of the six players in the short but effective video that was part of my transition from playing football in 1989.
Mother Teresa also helped, didn’t she?
I had the honor of meeting Mother Teresa in 1989. I found out she would be visiting where I lived in New Jersey, but a large crowd was expected. Since I had been mobbed as a member of the Giants, I didn’t want to subject her to the same treatment, so I declined an invitation.
Mark Bavaro and I later discovered she would be visiting her convent in the Bronx and attending a morning Mass, so we woke up very early and drove to a very desolate area of the Bronx where the convent was. We weren’t sure if the car was going to be there when we returned, but we persisted in our little pilgrimage.
After knocking on the front door, a little nun appeared. Without saying a word, she led us to a living room that had been converted into a chapel. It had a floor-to-ceiling crucifix that was bloodier than what we’re used to — and the words “I thirst” were next to it on the wall. Mother Teresa was sitting, barefoot, on the cold floor, and a nun offered us short stools to sit on. We sat there in silence and prayed with Mother. My interior prayer was: “Lord, what’s my next step in life?”
Despite the awkwardness of Mark and I perched on little stools wearing suits and overcoats, there didn’t seem to be a better place to pray; it reminded me of Moses’ burning-bush experience. It had to be the most unique setting for a Mass that I had ever encountered. Afterward, Mother left us with Miraculous Medals, which she was fond of giving out. All in all, attending Mass with a saint helped me to listen more intently to God’s voice and to what followed.
Then you decided to attend Notre Dame Law School?
Yes, during a conversation with Mark and the priests who concelebrated Mass, the topic turned toward bar exams and law school, and out of the blue, they started to tell me that I should go to law school myself. This was a completely new idea, so after meeting with Mother Teresa, I went on a retreat to think it over.
The primary theme I meditated upon, kicking the frozen turf around, was the Parable of the Rich Young Man. I thought, “I’m a Catholic who already goes to Mass every Sunday, tithes, doesn’t use contraception and so forth, so am I now supposed to give everything away?” I concluded that the point of the parable is not that God wants all our money, but he does want our hearts.
If I was asking God what he wanted me to do, I had to do so with an open heart, according to my state in life as a husband and father. I could not have a bunch of pre-conditions attached; I had to be completely open to whatever he might answer, so I decided to give law school a chance.
Through the advice of a friend, I visited the late, great Notre Dame law professor Charles Rice, who convinced me that Notre Dame was the place for me. I was accepted, and my wife remembers the look on my face when I came home from the bookstore loaded with texts for classes. I was smiling ear to ear, since I knew I would be getting the philosophical truth that had escaped me as an undergrad. I was about to become better acquainted with Plato, Aristotle, St. Augustine, St. Thomas Aquinas and other great thinkers.
City of God by St. Augustine is a classic that many people have read through the centuries, and it has long been a regular part of my reading. If I had to pick a favorite book, City of God might be it, but there are many other good ones, such as Cardinal Sarah’s recent The Power of Silence: Against the Dictatorship of Noise. Another I have gained so much from is Benedictus: Day by Day With Pope Benedict XVI, edited by Father Peter Cameron, the Dominican editor of Magnificat magazine. My sister-in-law thought I would be interested in it because of the photo of the Pope on the cover, and the contents are fantastic.
How did you start Life Athletes?
Officially, that happened in 1992, while in law school at Notre Dame, but a few years before, G.K. Chesterton’s Everlasting Man captured my attention by showing that we were following in the same path as those who had sacrificed their children to false gods for the sake of prosperity in Northern Africa. This was followed by regular reading of The Human Life Review.
The scales fell from my eyes, and I saw that the United States was doing the same thing as Northern Africa had. So often the arguments for abortion are economic — such as children being financial burdens that prevent women from entering the workforce and producing more material things. I saw how, despite our many great accomplishments as a society, we still had some enormous difficulties that needed to be improved, so I started Life Athletes.
What exactly is the purpose of the group?
The purpose of Life Athletes is to inspire young people to lead lives of virtue and, in so doing, respect human life. We have print and electronic resources, and we give talks to students and conduct football camps. I like to use athletic metaphors and real-life stories from my football experiences, but the group is not just for athletes. It’s for anyone who wants to become virtuous.
The world will tell you happiness is found in immediate gratification, but faith and reason tell us otherwise. Our happiness is determined by our relationships, and the only way our relationships will be fulfilling is if we first have a good relationship with God. Then we can see people for the great beings they are, but at the same time, not idolize them and try to get from them what only God can give.
This is where the natural law is so helpful. We can, by reason alone, figure out so many things about living a virtuous and happy life. Then we can take that reasoning and refine it even further with the teachings of the Catholic Church — teachings which, despite what many will tell you, are not arbitrary, but meant to bring about genuine freedom and joy.
What about the Church has helped you to lead a virtuous life?
The presence of Christ — first and foremost in the Eucharist, but also in the other sacraments and in so many other things, such as the written word of God. The Church is not just a group, but a living continuation of the life of Christ, so he will always be present in it in various ways.
One of the most recent things we’ve received from the Church is the so-called theology of the body. I speak about some issues that would come under the “TOB” category, but I don’t get really specific or assume that dating in high school is a good and automatic thing, et cetera. I haven’t read Alice von Hildebrand’s Dark Night of the Body, but based on other things I know and admire about her, I probably take a traditional stance like hers for theology of the body.
Is Life Athletes your main line of work?
It is the center of attention for my working hours, and we’ve expanded to address the needs of older people. We have received indispensable support from the Knights of Columbus over the years, as well as from a few faithful individuals whose friendship has become even more important than their financial support. The Order of Malta has also been helpful.
However, Life Athletes is not a very profitable enterprise, so I do use my law degree to offer complete and comprehensive estate-planning services. We have a unique process that not only assures that our clients’ plans will work, but also that the larger reality of God’s providence is acknowledged. This is an important sphere in which to have a presence, and it is also a part of the Life Athletes’ commitment to respect the lives of the elderly. To that end, I advise a local “Successful Aging Group” and am the vice president of the Thomas More Society in South Bend, Indiana.
Do you find in estate-planning services that it is easier to see clients, not merely as sources of income, but as souls in the brink of eternity?
Absolutely. It’s true that we all are a breath from death, but it’s easier to see that in older people. Hence, conversations can more easily turn to spiritual matters. As I mentioned, this has helped me expand the purpose of Life Athletes, which coincides with how older people are at the center of life issues today.
Aside from avoiding the pitfalls of assisted suicide, older people can be helped to see, despite their physical and mental decline, that they are near the finish line. We’ll all be there soon enough, but they have the advantage of keeping things simple and not fretting about decades more of this life.
That’s what we did in the Super Bowl: We had a simple plan of keeping the opposing players away from the point of attack, and it worked. We can also keep the enemy away from the point of attack by participating in the sacraments, praying and living virtuous lives. Engulfed by so much grace, temptations will be largely shut out and victory far more likely.
Even when things get tough, we should never lose hope. The Giants experienced this in 1986, with an opening-game loss to the Dallas Cowboys. Not many people would have picked us to win the Super Bowl after that, but we persevered and ended the regular season at 14-2. In the meantime, the Cowboys finished 7-9 and did not make the playoffs. In football, it’s not how you start, but how you finish, and the same thing is true in life. We should all be working toward a strong finish.
Register correspondent Trent Beattie writes from Seattle.
His book, Fit for Heaven (Dynamic Catholic, 2015), contains numerous Catholic sports
interviews, most of which have appeared in the Register.